MOJ Announces Limited RETL Management Reforms, But Basics of the Current System To Remain Unchanged For Now

December 8, 2004

According to reports in Chinese domestic media (1, 2, 3), Justice Minister Zhang Fusen led a national work conference on management of the re-education through labor (RETL) system. He announced what were characterized as four "major" reforms to the system: (1) standardization of the three types of RETL management (closed, open, and semi-open), with an emphasis on semi-open management; (2) improvement of education methods, with a new emphasis on classroom education and "scientific" methods; (3) strengthening of efforts to provide vocational training to detainees; and (4) the adoption of a "healthy life code" for detainees, with a new focus on disease prevention and controlling drug habits. At the same time, the Ministry of Justice Web site emphasized that RETL reform will take place on the foundation of the current system, under a framework that Zhang called the "five persists": (1) persist in servicing the Party’s ability to maintain power; (2) persist in taking people as the basis; (3) persist in the coercive, educational, and other basic qualities of the RETL system; (4) persist in synthesizing old practices and new ideas; and (5) persist in making education to save people the core.

The Chinese government has hinted throughout the year that significant RETL reform would be implemented before the end of 2004. However, the reforms announced this week appear to be limited. Although they suggest greater openness in the management of RETL detainees once sentenced, the reforms address none of the principal concerns of Chinese and foreign observers about RETL detention procedures or the legal basis for the system. Other reform efforts may deal with some of these issues. Press reports over the last year indicate that the National People’s Congress is drafting a "Law on Correcting Unlawful Acts" that would address some basic concerns about RETL procedures and the vague definition of RETL offenses while providing a more sound legal basis for the system. (For more on these issues, see the criminal justice section of the 2004 CECC Annual Report.) However, Zhang’s emphasis on maintaining the RETL system's coercive nature and utility as a mechanism for maintaining Party power suggests that fundamental reform of RETL actually may not be forthcoming.